An ethnic group is a set of people with a common ancestry, culture, and language. The Han Chinese, at a 1.3 billion strong, are an ethnic group; the Samaritans, of whom there are fewer than a thousand, are also an ethnic group. Ishi was, before his death, an ethnic group of one: the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California.
We sit within nested sets of genetic relatives:
(You are most likely part Homo neanderthalensis, because different species within the Homo genus have interbred multiple times.)
Interestingly, Wikipedia lists African American as an ethnicity on its list of ethnic groups page (as they should, because it is).
Four or five hundred relatives, from parents and children to fifth cousins, are enough to begin to describe an ethnic group. It certainly looks, based on the map, like I hail from an ethnic group–yet neither Wikipedia nor 23 and Me recognize this group.
Larger ethnic groups may be subdivided into smaller sub-groups known variously as tribes or clans, which over time may become separate ethnic groups themselves due to endogamy or physical isolation from the parent group. Conversely, formerly separate ethnicities can merge to form a pan-ethnicity, and may eventually merge into one single ethnicity. Whether through division or amalgamation, the formation of a separate ethnic identity is referred to as ethnogenesis.
Of course, no one wants to submit their DNA to 23 and Me and get the result “You’re a white person from America.” (Nor “You’re a black person from America.”) We know that. People take these tests to look at their deeper history.
But focusing only on the past makes it easy to lose sight of the present. You aren’t your ancestors. The world didn’t halt in 1492. I’m no more “British” or “European” than I am “Yamnaya” or “Anatolian farmer.”
History moves on. New ethnic groups form. The past tells us something about where we’ve been–but not where we’re headed.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
If I recall correctly, Lewis once spilled a lot of hot coffee on a white inmate who was threatening him, but otherwise claimed not to have many real problems–lucky for everyone involved.
Other people have not been so lucky.
According to Wikipedia, (with slight rearrangements for narrative’s sake):
Most prisons in the United States were racially segregated until the 1960s. As prisons began to desegregate, many inmates organized along racial lines. The Aryan Brotherhood is believed to have been formed at San Quentin State Prison, … They decided to strike against the blacks who were forming their own militant group called the Black Guerrilla Family. …
The initial motivation for the formation of the group in San Quentin in 1964 was self-protection against an existing black prison gang. …
After being formed in California prisons in the mid-1960s, the Aryan Brotherhood had spread to most California prisons by 1975. As some of the leaders were sent to federal prison, they took the opportunity to start organizing in the federal prisons. … By the late 1970s, there were fewer than 100 members, but that grew rapidly as they absorbed other racist and skinhead groups, with over 20,000 members in the federal and state prison systems. …
By the 1990s, the Aryan Brotherhood had shifted its focus away from killing for strictly racial reasons and focused on organized crime such as drug trafficking, prostitution, and sanctioned murders. … For example, Gambino crime family boss John Gotti was assaulted while incarcerated in Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1996, and he allegedly asked the Aryan Brotherhood to murder his attacker. Gotti’s attacker was immediately transferred to protective custody and the planned retaliation was abandoned. …
Gotti also organized a business partnership on the outside between his group and the Brotherhood on the outside, which greatly expanded the group’s power on the streets. …
A “social construct”–in the context of groups of people–is just a stereotype. We’ll call it an “idealized version.” We learn this idealized version by interacting with many individual instances of a particular type of thing and learning to predict its typical behaviors and characteristics.
Suppose I asked you to draw a picture of a man and woman. Go ahead, if you want; then you can compare it to the draw-a-man test.
Out in reality, there are about 7 billion men and women; there is no way you drew someone who looks like all of them. Chances are you drew the man somewhat taller than the woman, even though in reality, there are millions of men and women who are the same height. You might have even drawn hair on the figures–long hair for the woman, short for the man–and some typical clothing, even though you know there are many men with long hair and women with short.
In other words, you drew an idealized version of the pair in order to make it clear to someone else what, exactly, you were drawing.
Our idealized pictures work because they are true on average. The average woman is shorter than the average man, so we draw the woman shorter than the man–even though we know perfectly well that short men exist.
Once an ideal exists, people (it seems) start using artificial means to try to achieve it (like wearing makeup,) which shifts the average, which in turn prompts people to take more extreme measures to meet that ideal.
This may lead to run-away beauty or masculinity trends that look completely absurd from the outside, like foot binding, adult circumcision rituals, or peacocks’ tails. Or breasts–goodness knows why we have them while not nursing.
Our idealized images work less well for people far from the average, or who don’t want to do the activities society has determined are necessary to meet the ideal.
Here’s an interesting survey of whether people (in this case, whites) consider themselves masculine or feminine, broken down by political orientation.
The same trend holds for women–conservative women are much more likely to consider themselves to be very feminine than liberal women. Of course, ideology has an effect on people’s views, but the opposite is probably also true–people who don’t feel like they meet gender ideals are more likely to think those ideals are problematic, while people who do meet them are more likely to think they are perfectly sensible.
And this sort of thinking applies to all sorts of groups–not just men and women. Conservatives probably see themselves as better encapsulating the ideal of their race, religion, nationality (not just American conservatives, but conservatives of all stripes,) while liberals are probably more likely to see themselves as further from these ideals. The chief exceptions are groups where membership is already pre-determined as liberal, like vegetarians.
This may also account for the tendency people have, especially of late, to fight over certain representations. An idealized representation of “Americans” may default to white, since whites are still the majority in this country, but our growing population of non-whites would also like to be represented. This leads to pushback against what would be otherwise uncontroversial depictions (and the people who fit the ideal are not likely to appreciate someone else trying to change it on them.)
Last weekend, (as of when I wrote this,) while the rest of the world landed rockets on the moon, launched revolutions, enjoyed a good soccer match, or whatever it is other people do, Americans lost their shit over a teenager smirking (SMIRKING, I tell you) at a Native American.
This smirking teenager was so shocking to the American conscience that no less a newspaper than the New York Times covered the incident:
They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.
Of course, many pundits have argued that wearing a hat supporting the sitting US president is itself a crime.
Condemnation for the crime of “getting up in yo face and smirking while wearing a hat” was swift. A Disney producer called for the boy to fed, head first, into a woodchipper.
Calmer voices advocated for merely punching the boy in the face.
About five minutes later, more video footage of the event emerged, and the real story began trickling through the internet–contrary to what the NY Times had reported, the smirking teens had not surrounded a Native American elder. The elder, (Nathan Philips,) had walked up to them, and they, waiting for their bus at the end of a school field trip, had stayed put and kept waiting for their bus.
At this point, some in the media apologized–and others doubled down. Smirking was a crime. The students were racists.
Everyone who bullied this little boy absolutely deserves to be beaten and then their parents deserve to be beaten for raising such disgusting little shits, but no one is calling for them to be put into a woodchipper, because the good and thoughtful of America don’t think bullying a disabled child to death is as terrible a crime as smirking at a guy.
I have yet to observe anyone in the media suggesting that we could save the American taxpayers a bundle by feeding Cerda through a woodchipper instead of keeping him in prison. Does he have a punchable face? More like a face that would break your fist if you tried.
I could go on. Criminals do terrible things every day. People raped, tortured, and murdered, even children. True, we have a system in place that tries, (albeit clumsily and at times with sociopathic carelessness,) to punish criminals and remove them from the rest of us, but the high and mighty of our nation seem utterly unmoved by their crimes. They express only confusion–and anger–at the peasant rabble that gets worked up by such meaningless events as “someone murdering your daughter.” Don’t these peasants know that the real crimes are committed by smirking schoolboys? That the real crime is smirking?
The real divide in America today is between people who think it should be illegal to shoot home invaders but legal to put MAGA teens through woodchippers, and everyone else who hasn’t gone completely fucking insane.
It has come to my attention that some of you (I am looking at you) don’t know what I mean by the word “race.” I try to be consistent, but unfortunately, the word is used pretty inconsistently out in society–“Human race,” “Asian race,” “English race,” “Female race,” etc. There is even a term, “landrace” used over in biology to denote a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant. “Race” was originally used similar to “breed” or “lineage;” today, people usually use it to denote a level of genetic relatedness one step up from ethnic group.
When I use it, I am (usually) referring to one of the three macro-races of humanity: Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians.
People often treat “Caucasian” and “white” as synonyms, but they’re not. “Caucasians” includes North Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and many Indians (from India.) Three of these groups are not generally thought of as being included in “white,” but from a genetic perspective they definitely cluster together in the Caucasian clade (depicted above.) People may tell you that “race is a social construct,” but human population clades are not.
Since people don’t use “race” in any consistent way, it would be valid to refer to a “white race” that is a subset of the greater Caucasian race–but this is confusing because two different levels of genetic similarity are being described with the same word.
I have personally come to regard “white” as an America-centric ethnonym, (but I can’t promise I have always used it consistently.)
What do I mean?
“Whites” and “Blacks” in America are not drawn equally from all pale and dark skinned groups back in Europe and Africa. Indeed, just having some kind of European identity (eg, Irish,) is often enough to incur an at least joking insistence that one is not white.
Remember that homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old, give or take a decade, and the era of swift, long-range travel is only about 500 years old. The “races” and “ethnic groups” that existed in 1491 were largely a result of travel being difficult, with barriers like the Sahara desert and the Himalayas massively interfering with human movement. These barriers effectively separated most human groups, preventing them from interbreeding and thus sending them off in their own genetic directions–until 1492.
Post 1492, the Americas became a mixing zone where Native Americans (Asian clade), Europeans (Caucasians) and West Africans (Sub Saharan Africans) met and interacted–the many degrees of mixed race ancestry found in Latin America are one result of this interaction.
American whites hailed, indeed, from a different race than American blacks and they, in turn, from American Indians. So within the American context, calling them different races made sense–and was accurate. But they were never drawn equally from all parts of their greater racial clades. They were drawn from particular ethnic groups back home–US “whites” initially from Northwest European countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
When these different ethnic groups got here and started marrying each other, they became their own, new ethnic group.
So when people ask, “Is so-and-so white?” or “Is this group white?” it depends on what exactly you mean by white. Do you mean “light skinned”? Treated as white in the US? European? Hailing from one of the ethnic groups that contributed to “whites” in the US? Not possessing any competing European ethnic identity besides white?
Usually meaning can be inferred from conversation, but things can get confusing when people are using two different definitions or when discussing groups that didn’t contribute much to America’s founding stock.
I have perhaps mentioned before my discomfort with the word “racism”–not because I don’t think people discriminate against other people, but because it privileges offenses that cross a certain level of genetic dissimilarity between people as worse than offenses that cross smaller differences.
Was the English genocide of the Boers somehow less bad simply because the English and Boers are both “white”? Yes, we could say that the English were racist against the Boers, despite being part of the same race, or declare that the “English race” is a thing, but this is confusing. Plus, people can dislike each other for reasons totally unrelated to race, such as being male or female, disabled, or unattractive. I doubt anyone who was turned down for a date or denied a job because they happen to have the misfortune of being ugly ever comforted themself that at least they weren’t turned down because of their race.
And then there is the recent trend of calling people racist for disliking particular religions, even though Americans have traditionally thought of religions as belief systems–matters of opinion–rather than ethnic groups. (Indeed, there is a deep conflict between the traditional American view that religion is a matter of conscience, enshrined in the Bill of Rights next to the Freedom of Speech, and thus freely criticisable like any other opinion, and the view put forth by various endogamous ethno-religious groups that religion is ethnicity and therefore any criticism is racist.)
But to sum: when I use “race,” I am referring to the macro-races of Caucasians, East Asians, and Sub-Saharan Africans. I try not to confuse matters by mixing up genetic levels, but I can’t promise I have always been consistent in every post.
In honor of reaching 800 posts, we’ve taken a look back at our most popular pieces. Some of them have been surprises–like Do Black Babies Have Blue Eyes? (I didn’t think they did, but I wanted to be sure, because I had run across general claims like “All babies are born with blue eyes.”)
Apparently people love babies, so here are some interesting baby facts:
Babies are born with less melanin than their parents, because there’s no need for protection from sunlight while in the womb. This is why black babies are often a bit paler than than parents. (I try not to invade other people’s privacy by posting photos of other people’s infants, but here is a stock photo in which the newborn’s color is about the same as their father’s palms, distinctly lighter than their father’s overall coloration.)
Melanin levels typically increase over time in babies of all races, darkening skin and eyes. So white babies are often born with blue, grey, or light brown eyes that darken to the normal white range of blue to dark brown, but most African and Asian babies start out with eyes that are already pretty dark because they naturally have more melanin–though even their eyes show a range of newborn colors, from dark grey to green.
Hair: Most babies, including black/African babies, are born with soft, silky hair. Baby hair is different from adult hair because it grows from round hair follicles (which produce straight hair) and lacks the central shaft (or medulla) that stiffens adult hair. Over the first few months of life, follicles flatten and medullas grow in, giving hair its stiffer, curlier, more adult form, though the extent of this process differs widely by population.
White babies end up with a variety of hair textures. Most Asian babies end up with thick, straight hair, due to a variant of the EDAR gene that arose about 65,000 years ago. Despite the great genetic variety found in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost all black babies end up with tightly coiled, curly hair. Black hair has probably therefore been very valuable to people in Africa, providing enough of an evolutionary advantage that it has become nigh universal.
(Note that our nearest human relatives, the chimps, do not have curly hair. It is tempting to say that infant hair resembles chimpanzee hair, but I have never petted a chimp and so cannot really judge.)
433 4-mo-old infants from Boston, Dublin, and Beijing were administered the same battery of visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli to evaluate differences in levels of reactivity. The Chinese Ss were significantly less active, irritable, and vocal than the Boston and Dublin samples, with Boston Ss showing the highest level of reactivity. Data suggest the possibility of temperamental differences between Caucasian and Asian infants in reactivity to stimulation.
The average length of gestation is about 5 days shorter in black populations than in white populations. Although some of this difference is accounted for by higher preterm delivery rates in blacks, the most common gestational week of delivery at term is the 39th in black populations, the 40th in white. Black gestational age specific neonatal mortality is lower than that of whites until the 37th week of gestation, but higher thereafter.
Another article with similar findings (though I don’t know how they define “Asian” because the source is British and Brits often include south Asians like Pakistanis in the “Asian” category even though they are genetically closer to Europeans. So far I haven’t found any data that specifically addresses gestation length in East Asians.) This study found that pregnancies vary naturally in length by over a month, even excluding some premature births. There are many reasons why pregnancies may vary, including maternal age, size, stress, and genetics–important factors for Obgyns to keep in mind when evaluating the medical needs of different mothers and their fetuses.
Our society has managed to simultaneously discover identity politics and that identity groups tend to vote together:
“We’re just like you! Make society friendlier to us!”
“Okay, but why do you all vote for the party I don’t like?”
Even when you control for ideology, ethnic voting still shows up. This graph shows only conservatives–conservative blacks are still extremely unlikely to vote for Republicans. Conservative Asians and Hispanics actually do vote Republican on balance (in this particular poll), but about 40% of them still voted for the Democrat.
Non-Jewish whites are the most loyal conservative voters, even among self-professed conservatives.
The problem with immigration is that we live in a democracy.
Republicans now regard immigration as a massive attempt to demographically swamp the electorate by bringing in new voters who’ll vote Democrat because this is the functional result of immigration. Whether intentional or not, that is absolutely what it does.
Identity politics and awareness of identity-based voting are incompatible. “We’re just like you, we just vote for everything you hate,” is not a winning argument.
Polite society often requires politely not noticing or not pointing out other people’s differences. A store clerk helps an customer find a “flattering dress” without mentioning the customer’s obesity. A teacher helps students catch up in school without calling them stupid. And we don’t mention that different ethnic groups have different political ideas.
“They’re just like us,” and “I don’t see race,” are both lies people tell to try to get along in large, multi-ethnic societies. Obviously ethnic and racial differences are easy to see, and different groups have different cultures with their own norms, values, and beliefs. Chinese culture is different from Ghanian culture is different from Chilean culture is different from gay culture is different from video game culture, and so on.
The pretty little lie of democracy is the idea that people vote based on rational, well-thought out ideas about how government should be run. In reality, they vote their self-interest, and most people see their self-interest lying in solidarity with others in their ethnic group. Even when they aren’t voting pure self-interest, cultural similarities still result in voting similarities.
The insistence that people must see race was accompanied by increased demands for racially-based benefits/an end to racially-based harms–that is, the change was triggered by a perception that being more racially aware would benefit minorities. But this leads, in turn, to increased visibility of ethnic voting patterns, explicit vote-counting by ethnicity, and ethnic voting conflict.
Admit that ethnic differences are real and that everyone is voting in their own self-interest.
Admit that ethnic differences are real and get rid of voting.
Option One is the Left’s strategy. These are the folks who insist that “race is a social construct” but at the same time that “white fragility” is real and that “whiteness needs to be abolished.” They’ll also threaten to send you to gulag for stating that Affirmative Action exists because blacks score worse than whites on the SAT. (True story.)
Option Two is the Alt-Right strategy. If the Pittsburgh shooter’s motive remains opaque to you, here it is: the majority of US Jews vote Democrat and support immigration policies that will continue giving Democrats a majority.
Option Three is NeoReaction aka neocameralism. Remove voting and you remove the incentive to shoot each other over demographic cheating (perceived or not.)
(This blog favors Option Three, the strategy that doesn’t involve shooting each other, but we understand why others might not.)
ETA: Perhaps there ought to be an Option Four: People stop arguing so much and try harder to get along. I’m not sure exactly how this would come about, but I know there are people who believe in it.
I almost feel sad for Senator Warren. One day, a little girl looked in the mirror, saw pale skin, brown hair, and blue eyes looking back at her, and thought, “No. This can’t be right. This isn’t me.”
So she found a new identity, based on a family legend–a legend shared by a suspicious number of white people–that one of her ancestors was an American Indian.
This new identity conveyed certain advantages: Harvard Law claimed her as a Native American to boost claims of racial diversity among the faculty:
A majority [83%] of Harvard Law School students are unhappy with the level of representation of women and minorities on the Law School faculty, according to a recent survey. …
Law students said they want to learn from a variety of perspectives and approaches to the law. “A black male from a lower socioeconomic background will approach the study of constitutional law in a different way from a white upper-class male,” Reyes said. …
Of 71 current Law School professors and assistant professors, 11 are women, five are black, one is Native American and one is Hispanic, said Mike Chmura, spokesperson for the Law School.
Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.
In response to criticism of the current administration, Chmura pointed to “good progress in recent years.”
The University of Pennsylvania chose not to tout in the press their newly minted Native American professor. But her minority status was duly noted: The university’s Minority Equity Report, published in April 2005, shows that Warren won a teaching award in 1994. Her name is in bold and italicized to indicate she was a minority. …
The law school was happy to have her count as a diversity statistic, however, and for at least three of the years she taught there — 1991, 1992, and 1994 — an internal publication drawing on statistics from the university’s federal affirmative action report listed one Native American female professor in the university’s law school.
Warren’s Native American identity may have played no role in her hiring (the committees involved appear not to have known or cared about her identity,) but it seems to have been important to Warren herself. As her relatives aged and died, and she moved away from her childhood home in Oklahoma and then Texas, she was faced with that persistent question: Who am I?
The truth, a white woman from a working class family in Oklahoma, apparently wasn’t enough for Elizabeth. (Oklahoma doesn’t carry many status points over in East Coast academic institutions.)
Each of us is the sum of many things, including the stories our families tell us and genetic contributions from all of our ancestors–not just the interesting ones (within a limit–after enough generations, each individual contribution has become so small that it may not be passed on in reproduction.)
I have also done the 23 and Me thing, and found that I hail from something like 20 different ethnic groups–including, like Warren, a little smidge of Native American. But none of those groups make up the majority of my DNA. All of them are me; none of them are me. I just am.
Warren’s announcement of her DNA findings vindicated her claim to a Native American ancestor and simultaneously unveiled the absurdity of her claim to be a Native American. What should have been a set of family tales told to friends and passed on to children and grandchildren about a distant ancestor became a matter of national debate that the Cherokee Nation itself felt compelled to weigh in on:
Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.
Like them or not, the Cherokee have rules about who is and isn’t a Cherokee, because being Cherokee conveys certain benefits–for example, the tribe builds houses for members and helps them look for jobs. This is why conflicts arise over matters like whether the Cherokee Freedmen are official members. When membership in a group conveys benefits, the borders of that group will be policed–and claims like Warren’s, no matter how innocently intended, will be perceived as an attempt at stealing something not meant for her.
Note: I am not saying this kind of group border policing is legitimate. Many “official” Cherokee have about as much actual Cherokee blood in them as Elizabeth Warren, but they have a documented ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, so they qualify and she doesn’t. Border policing is just what happens when there are benefits associated with being part of a group.
I don’t have an issue with Warren’s own self-identity. After all, if race is a social construct,* then she’s doing it exactly right. She’s allowed to have an emotional connection to her own ancestors, whether that connection is documented via the Dawes Rolls or not. All of us here in America should have equal access to Harvard’s benefits, not just the ones who play up a story about their ancestors.
The sad thing, though, is that despite being one of the most powerful and respected women people in America, she still felt the need to be more than she is, to latch onto an identity she doesn’t truly possess.
You know, Elizabeth… it’s fine to just be a white person from Oklahoma. It’s fine to be you.
*Note: This blog regards “species” and nouns generally as social constructs, because language is inherently social. That does not erase biology.
Welcome to EvX’s book club. Today we’re discussing Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, Introduction.
I’ve been discussing the robot economy for years (though not necessarily via the blog.) What happens when robots take over most of the productive jobs? Most humans were once involved in directly producing the necessities of human life–food, clothing, and shelter, but mostly food. Today, machines have eliminated most food and garment production jobs. One tractor easily plows many more acres in a day than a horse or mule team did in the 1800s, allowing one man to produce as much food as dozens (or hundreds) once did.
What happened to those ex-farmers? Most of us are employed in new professions that didn’t exist (eg, computer specialist) or barely existed (health care), but there are always those who can’t find employment–and unemployment isn’t evenly distributed.
Since 1948, the overall employment rate has rarely exceeded 7.5%; the rate for whites has been slightly lower. By contrast, the black unemployment rate has rarely dipped below 10% (since 1972, the best data I have.) The black unemployment rate has only gone below 7.5 three times–for one month in 1999, one month in 2000, and since mid-2017. 6.6% in April, 2018 is the all-time low for black unemployment. (The white record, 3.0%, was set in the ’60s.)
(As Auerswald points out, “unemployment” was a virtually unknown concept in the Medieval economy, where social station automatically dictated most people’s jobs for life.)
Now I know the books are cooked and “unemployment” figures are kept artificially low by shunting many of the unemployed into the ranks of the officially “disabled,” who aren’t counted in the statistics, but no matter how you count the numbers, blacks struggle to find jobs at the same rates as whites–a problem they didn’t face in the pre-industrial, agricultural economy (though that economy caused suffering in its own way.)
A quick glance at measures of black and white educational attainment explains most of the employment gap–blacks graduate from school at lower rates, are less likely to earn a college degree, and overall have worse SAT/ACT scores. In an increasingly “post-industrial,” knowledge-based economy where most unskilled labor can be performed by robots, what happens to unskilled humans?
What happens when all of the McDonald’s employees have been replaced by robots and computers? When even the advice given by lawyers and accountants can be more cheaply delivered by an app on your smartphone? What if society, eventually, doesn’t need humans to perform most jobs?
Will most people simply be unemployed, ruled over by the robot-owning elite and the lucky few who program the robots? Will new forms of work we haven’t even begun to dream of emerge? Will we adopt some form of universal basic income, or descend into neo-feudalism? Will we have a permanent underclass of people with no hope of success in the current economy, either despairing at their inability to live successful lives or living slothfully off the efforts of others?
Here lies the crux of Auerswald’s thesis. He provides four possible arguments for how the “advance of code” (ie, the accumulation of technological knowledge and innovation,) could turn out for humans.
The Rifkin View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate.
If so, we should be deeply worried.
The Kurzweil View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly complements human capabilities.
Therefore the (absolute) power of human capabilities is growing at an exponential rate.
If so, we may look forward to the cyborg singularity
The Auerswald View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate [at least we all agree on something.]
Code only partially substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate in those categories of work that can be performed by computers, but not in others.
In other words, where Kurzweil talks about an impeding code-induced Singularity, the reality looks much more like one code-induced bifurcation–the division of labor between humans and machines–after another.
The answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple: humans are better at being human.
1. Creating and improving code is a key part of what we human beings do. It’s how we invent the future by building on the past.
2. The evolution of the economy is driven by the advance of code. Understanding this advance is therefore fundamental to economics, and to much of human history.
3. When we create and advance code we don’t just invent new toys, we produce new forms of meaning, new experiences, and new ways of making our way in the world.
Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.
In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.
How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.
Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.
The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.
In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.
By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.
So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.
In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.
Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)
In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.
Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.
Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.
One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.
One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.
It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.
Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.
But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.
However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.
Also, crime went up dramatically:
While we’re at it:
Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.
Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)
From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.
But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.
Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.
Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.
In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”
Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?
(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)
For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.
This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:
Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.
Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)
Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.
It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.
Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.
So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.
Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …
In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication. …
Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.
In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.
In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:
Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.
On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …
According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.
According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.
In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …
After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.
In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.
Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.